Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 7) – A Unified Theodicy

Before presenting my answer to the problem of evil, it is better to understand the two major mistakes that the above theodicies seem to make. They will seem like petty critiques, but I will seek to show why they aren’t petty and why these problems must be dealt with.

First, the minor problem I’ve noticed is that philosophers and theologians inevitably end up using a language of being with talking about evil. Now, of course this is inevitable, but unfortunately rather than recognizing it, it often subverts the theory. The language of being (e.g. “cause,” “purpose,” etc) indicates that evil has a form, a substance, and an essence; yet evil lacks all of these things because it isn’t really a “thing.” Rather, evil is a lack of something. As the Damascene explains, “For it is inconceivable that evil should originate from good. Then we reply that evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil.”[1]

To be fair, none of the philosophers in the G-G theodicies, nor Little, nor Plantinga would argue that evil has a substance. They would contend that they use this language only out of necessity, but ultimately acknowledge that evil is the privation of good. However, it seems that though the language of being is necessary to talk about evil (at least without using long, drawn-out sentences), we do begin to treat evil as though it were a substance. In using the language of being when discussing evil we begin to act as though evil does have a being, which can inadvertently impact our theodicy (I see this particularly in G-G theodicies as opposed to C-O theodicies). Perhaps it is an accident, or perhaps I am reading into these defenses what isn’t there, but it is an observation.

The second problem, and the bigger problem, is that many of these theodicies ignore worldview thinking. While worldview thinking may not be popular with some philosophers, it’s an inescapable reality; unless we are inconsistent in our views on the world, we all have a worldview. Likewise, theism and Christianity are self-contained worldviews (that overlap in some areas). In light of this, the above theodicies, with exception to C-O Theodicy, are seemingly created outside of these worldviews, or refuse to take an overall narrative into account when creating a theodicy, making the theodicy inconsistent within the broader narrative.

What we see with Plantinga’s theodicy and G-G theodicies is they aren’t really consistent with what theists say about God. Worse for Christians is they aren’t consistent with a Christian worldview. While a C-O Theodicy seeks to avoid this problem, I would argue that it fails to answer (1) how it is that we were capable of sin before the fall, but not after glorification (if we’re simply returned to our original state as Little seems to believe) and (2) the ultimate purpose for creation; the very act of creation seems superfluous if there is ultimately no point in allowing evil. I applaud a C-O Theodicy for correcting the mistakes of G-G Theodicies by attempting to place a theodicy within the Christian metanarrative and attempting to put theodicy back on the right track of fitting within the Christian context, but I believe that Little’s attempt ultimately falls short of accomplishing its goal.

If I am right in my criticisms then all future theodicies must (1) seek to do their best to avoid using a language of being when talking about evil and (2) seek to make the explanation of evil consistent within theism (especially Christianity). My attempt at a Unified Theodicy seeks to meet both of these criteria.

A Unified Theodicy can best be explained as “when gratuitous evil is met by gratuitous love.” This is simply a play on the word “gratuitous.” When applied to evil the connotation of “gratuitous” has already been explained (seemingly unnecessary). When applied to love, however, it refers to something done free of charge, or to something that is given (like a mechanic doing gratuitous work on a car, this means he wouldn’t charge the car owner). The entirety of my theory rests upon love, specifically the love of God.

Before going on, it would be best to define love. When I use the word “love” I have in mind the Greek word agape, which can refer to benevolence. Rather than reducing word after word, ultimately love refers to an act of sacrifice, specifically an act done without expectation of repayment or for which it is impossible to repay. A man might see a woman unable to pay for her groceries and he pays for them, knowing the woman will never be able to pay him back. This is a form of love and one of the higher forms at that (as it’s an act of purely altruistic sacrifice). Since sacrifice is indicative of love, the greater the sacrifice and the less likely such a sacrifice can be recompensed, the greater the act of love.

We can look in the Trinity and see that such a love does exist among the members of the Trinity. The Father shares His glory with the Word and the Spirit, while the Word and Spirit work with the will of the Father. Since the Persons of the Trinity all share in the divine essence of God (though His essence is not divided as all three are equally God), the type of sacrifice available is limited. But even in this limitation, we still see the members working to serve one another.

We also see sacrificial love with God’s act of creation, for to create means God allowed something lesser than Himself to come into existence. But then He limited His power in order to allow His creation to have free will. Such a limiting was an act of sacrifice on the part of God, which in turn is an act of love.

Both the ancient Jews and early Christians understood that the act of creation was really an act of love and done out of God’s love (not solely or primarily for His glory as many in the Reformed tradition say).[2] The deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon displays that the early Jews understood that God shows His love to all of His creation (Wisdom of Solomon 11:24-26) and that everything was created because of His love. We can turn to the Damascene and read,

“Now, because the good and transcendentally good God was not content to contemplate Himself, but by a superabundance of goodness saw fit that there should be some things to benefit by and participate in His goodness, He brings all things from nothing into being and creates them, both visible and invisible, and man, who is made up of both.”[3]

Notice that the Damascene says it was out of a “superabundance” of goodness that God saw fit to create everything. While God could have contemplated Himself for eternity and lived in perfect, holy communion with Himself (since though He is one, He is three in person), He instead chose to create those who could also experience His love and love Him, though they would be lesser than Him.

Likewise, Genesis 2:9 teaches us that humans were created in order to Love God. The love man experiences doesn’t stop with God, but is also meant to extend to his neighbor (Mathew 22:37-40). Thus, man was created to love God and to love his neighbor, but to truly sacrifice demands that one has free will. After all, if I am forced to give up something then the motive behind my sacrifice is forced, which cannot be considered an act of love. Rather, in order for sacrifice to truly be a loving act, it must be freely given out of a desire to benefit the other.

The “problem” with free will is that it doesn’t offer any promise that we’ll be successful in loving God or our neighbor. Free will means we can succeed, but it also means we can fail. But how can we know if we will fail if we are never tested? While Little’s C-O Theodicy teaches that man was as perfect as he can be from the moment of creation, what I believe he doesn’t take into account is that one who has been tested and passed is greater than one who has never been tested. “And so it was necessary first for man to be tested, since one who is untried and untested deserves no credit.”[4]

Thus, I would contend that Little is incorrect in his assessment, which does put forth a challenge to his theodicy and his claims about evil; the allowance of evil would show that while some goods may not outweigh their antecedent evils, the goods could still serve a purpose. In the case of Adam (and humanity in general), evil was allowed so that we might endure a test, for it is better to be tested and approved than to not be tested, as then we would deserve no credit and there would be no way to know if we truly love God.

The argument that evil was allowed so that we might show that we can love God is the central point of a Unified Theodicy. If we look at two marriages we can see the one that has been tested more and at a deeper level, yet has survived in tact, is generally the stronger of the two marriages. Testing improves love, hardship forces love to mature and grow or crumble and fall. When it crumbles and falls, the evil that was allowed in order to test the love becomes superfluous. When the love succeeds, however, it has given purpose to the act of evil. At its base, however, evil is allowed so that we might grow in our love for God; if there were no evil, if evil wasn’t allowed, then we could not love God as much as possible, therefore He does have a purpose in allowing evil.

From here I will seek to show how love is the missing component from all attempts at theodicy. Perhaps it has been ignored because we think it odd to explain the problem of evil by appealing to love, but ironically what we think would be opposite of evil actually helps to explain the problem of evil.

Unified Theodicy and the Logical Problem of Evil

In dealing with the logical problem of evil, Plantinga’s response is almost sufficient, but we must add love to the explanation. Once we do, something interesting happens. Not only is it logically possible for God to allow evil and still be all-good and omnipotent, it’s illogical to explain how God could be benevolent, omnipotent, and desire to display His love, but not allow for evil! When love is applied to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, not only is theism shored up and shown to be logically possible, but it almost becomes illogical to imagine a world in which evil doesn’t exist.

If we allow that God wants to display His love in the ultimate fashion to His creation, then God would necessarily allow evil (if He is to be logically consistent). Such a proposition must be true true.[5] Therefore,  how can God not allow evil in such a possible world? If God forbade evil then He would be unable to display His love in an ultimate fashion, which is through sacrifice. While the act of creation is certainly a sacrifice, it isn’t the ultimate act of sacrifice, or the best act of sacrifice in all possible worlds. The ultimate act of sacrifice is the laying down of one’s life, but in a world absent of evil there is no death, therefore by logical necessity evil must exist in order for the ultimate act of sacrifice to also exist.

Likewise, God must allow for free will so as to not become a logical contradiction in causing evil. While He is in control of some things, other things are given to our control, which is where evil comes from. Again, turning to the Damascene we read,

“Some things done depend on us, while others do not…To put it simply: those things depend on us which incur blame or praise and in respect to which one may be urged or bound by law.”[6]

With the above in mind, we return to the proposition (7), which read God creates a world containing evil and has a good reason for doing so. We are left with (1) God being omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly-good and (3) evil existing. (7) is consistent with both (1) and (3). The explanation for (7), however, is that God wished to create a world in which His creation would witness and experience the full power of His love, which can only happen in sacrifice. For sacrifice to exist, however, evil had to be present. Therefore, it’s not only logically consistent to believe that God and evil can co-exist, it’s illogical to believe that God could be all-loving, yet create a world where He stopped all evil.

Some might object and say that this means that God is still the cause of evil because He relies on evil in the actualized world to achieve His goal, which is to display His ultimate love to His creation. After all, it makes evil necessary. But this vastly undermines the mind of God.

If God knows all possible worlds, then He realizes there cannot be a world where free will agents will perpetually choose good when given the choice between good and evil. At some point, they will choose evil. Thus, allowing free will and allowing evil go hand-in-hand, they are what we Americans would call a “packaged deal”. Knowing this, God could have allowed free will agents to exist in order to display His love to them. In this case, God is not the cause of evil, but rather evil is simply a logical effect of allowing free will creatures.

Where Plantinga meets Hume’s objection and shows that it’s unfounded, a Unified Theodicy looks at God’s purpose in creation and turns Hume’s objection on its head. Not only is it logical to believe that God and a world of evil can co-exist, it becomes logically problematic or logically impossible to imagine how God could not allow for evil. If He didn’t allow evil, this would mean we lack free will, which would mean that God did not create us to share in His love. To share in God’s love is greater than not sharing in His love, and since God is benevolent He will choose the greater option. By deduction, if we were not created to share in His love, then He is not benevolent and isn’t worth being called God. Thus, it’s practically illogical to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God who could create a world where evil didn’t obtain.

Unified Theodicy and the Evidential Problem of Evil

In turning to the evidential problem of evil, we see that love as a starting point actually fixes many of the problems found in both G-G theodicies and a C-O Theodicy.

The explanation for the evidential problem of evil begins with the idea that love is a sacrifice, which means that God has sacrificed His power in order for us to exist. As I explained when defining terms, though God is sovereign, He doesn’t always actualize on what He can do. He allows for us to have real control over circumstances, but with real control comes evil.

If we have control over some things (not out of necessity, but because God allows it), that means that we must work with God to bring about goodness, or more appropriately, the power of His goodness. This would mean that some evil is actually superfluous initially, but good can come from it or in spite of it depending on our cooperation with God. That is to say, an evil is only completely gratuitous if we allow it to be so and refuse to work with God. Thus, God is not responsible for gratuitous evil, rather we are the instigators of such evil.

God will allow specific evils so that we might cooperate with Him in engaging in His love. Since evil was an inevitability in actualizing this world (or any possible world that contained free will agents), He won’t work to stop our evil choices (in most cases) so that He might preserve our free will, but He will also allow the evil in order to allow us to work with Him. How else could we learn to grow in God’s love if not through sacrifice, but how does one sacrifice in a perfect world? Certainly we could sacrifice to some degree, but we could not give our lives for one another, or allow evil to befall us so as to prevent it from befalling others. The act of sacrifice in this world amongst humans is far greater than it could have been in a world that did not contain evil.

Yet, when we fail to work with God when faced with evil, the evil becomes gratuitous because of us, not because of God. God has a purpose in allowing the evil (for us to work with Him in bringing good out of or in spite of the evil), but since we have a free will we must match His purpose and follow through. God is not a singular actor, but will work with us. When we fail to work with God, the evil becomes gratuitous because we have not brought any good out of it.

If we accept that for free will to be actualized we must be tested, then God allows evil so that we can be praised as humans or condemned as humans. Whether the evil we face is natural or caused by us, our reaction to evil is a test that helps us grow, or one that shows we have submitted evil. The only way for individuals to respond to evil is with love, for love will always outweigh the evil. I do not mean that the effects of love will outweigh the effects of evil, but instead that the good itself can help to end the evil or limit the effects of the evil.

One can imagine a very dark room, so dark that nothing can be seen. If one lights a match, a little light is put into the room that overcomes the darkness in the immediate area, but it doesn’t eradicate all the darkness. If we turn on a flashlight, more darkness will be vanquished, but it still won’t be complete. Love works the same way with evil; a little love may not eradicate all of the evil, but it will allow some to see past the evil. A man who holds a person dying of a disease won’t prevent the disease or the death, but he will ease the person’s passing; his little act of love will shine a bit of hope into a world surrounded by the darkness of evil. In such cases, the evil isn’t truly gratuitous for a purpose has been found (or created) within the allowance of the evil.

Alternatively, we can fail to bring love into the world and therefore perpetuate evil and aid evil. We make the evil superfluous when we do nothing to fight it or nothing to stop it. If we see a child suffering from emaciation and do nothing, then the evil is superfluous because we have done nothing. God has given us the ability to stop evil and work against it, but often we choose not to. Our failure to bring love into the world is what makes certain evils gratuitous. Even if we do not actively engage in the causation of the evil, our apathy towards the evil condemns as well.

When we do act against evil and bring about a greater good, or at least bring some good from the evil, we have fulfilled God’s purpose. This should not, however, be confused with a necessary good. The good that we bring from evil isn’t actually necessary; rather, God anticipates that evil will exist in a world full of free will agents and therefore allows the evil so that we might work with Him and participate in His goodness. John of Damascus offers perhaps the best explanation when he writes,

“This also must be known, that it is customary for Scripture to speak of some things as causes which really are chance effects, as: ‘To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee; that thou mayst be justified in thy words, and mayst overcome when thou art judged.’ Now, he who sinned did not do so in order that God might overcome, and neither did God have any need of our sin for Him to appear as victor over it. For God incomparably bears off the prize of victory over all, and even over such as do not sin, because He is Creator, and beyond understanding, and uncreated, and He has glory which comes from His nature and not from without. However, because it is not unjust of Him to inflict His wrath, when we sin, or to forgive, when we repent, He is proclaimed victor over our evil. And it is not because of this that we sin, but because the matter turns out that way. For instance, should one be sitting at work and a friend drop in, then he will say: ‘My friend has come to visit and so I shall not work today.’ The friend did not come to keep him from working, but just happened to drop in. So he, being taken up with the entertainment of his friend, does not work. Such things are called chance effects, because the matter happens that way. What is more, God does not want to be the only one that is just, but wishes that all be like Him in so far as they are able.”[7]

This long paragraph essentially sums up the Unified Theodicy when applied to the evidential problem of evil. Since evil is a “chance effect” from allowing free will, God allows it in order to allow us to be just.

The Unified Theodicy especially applies to natural disasters. Our response to a natural disaster determines whether or not the disaster is superfluous (this, of course, excludes disasters that are the result of God’s judgment). The harder we work to sacrifice in helping those who have suffered, the more our purpose as humans is fulfilled (to love our neighbors).

Natural disasters are allowed because of our sin and our disconnect with creation caused by sin (Genesis 3). Thus, even in natural disasters humans are ultimately responsible because we are disconnected from nature, but this disconnect was caused by us, not God. Yet, though natural disasters are inevitable, how we react to them will lessen or increase the impact of evil, so too how we prepare for them.

The purpose of humans is to love God and to love each other. Because of free will we will not always love God or one another, which is the cause of evil. It is only by living up to the purpose of our nature (love) that we can work against evil. When we do so we work with God in overcoming evil, ensuring that no evil is gratuitous and that something can be salvaged. When we fail to do so, we make evil gratuitous because we have failed to live up to God’s purpose in allowing the evil. To summarize, then, specific evils are allowed because:

1)          God allows us to have free will (though there are some cases where He will work against us if it serves His ultimate purpose)

2)          In allowing us to have free will, sin becomes an inevitability

3)          Though it becomes an inevitability, God will still allow specific acts of evil to either let us partake in His goodness and fight evil, or to condemn ourselves and aid evil

4)          Evil only becomes gratuitous when we fail to act against it. Though it is allowed because of God’s purpose, when we fail to meet that purpose it becomes superfluous

5)          Most evil allowed isn’t necessary, but instead is a consequence of humans acting on their free will

Unified Theodicy and the Existential Problem of Evil

The Unified Theodicy is probably best applied to the existential problem of evil, but rests upon the foundations of the intellectual arguments presented earlier. In other words, an answer to the existential problem of evil is only available because we dealt with the intellectual problems first. Thus, I would submit that a Unified Theodicy is a theodicy that works both academically and practically, that works when we’re observing evil from afar and when we’re in the midst of it, though it is applied differently in each respective case.

When we understand that all evil is allowed for us to fulfill a purpose, namely to love others and to love God, we are able to approach personal evils in a better light. A Unified Theodicy helps us when we see evil befall our neighbor. It allows us to show empathy and sacrifice for those who are suffering. When we see a family on the streets, we don’t simply say, “I will pray for that family.” Instead, we recognize that we have a responsibility to help such a person, that the evil was allowed so that we could help.

In the cases where the evil befalls us, we are forced to rely on God or to abandon Him, that is, to fulfill our purpose in life or to abandon it. Our reliance upon God and upon our local community is the only response to the existential problem of evil, but one can see how this response is the application of the Unified Theodicy. The reliance upon God and the community flows from the intellectual arguments offered earlier, but is applied different. By relying upon God and others, we are showing love towards God and others by sacrificing our pride and allowing others to help us. Hence, we are fulfilling our purpose of love.

Though it may not seem like it, this is the theodicy that is found in Job. To rely on God means that sometimes we question Him. But it also means that He may respond in a long, elaborate speech, which can be summed up with, “I am God, I am powerful, I love you, trust me.” Those who say that the book of Job doesn’t contain a theodicy are missing the point; God allows specific cases of evil so that we might rely on Him, which is an act of sacrifice and submission on our part; it is an act of love to doubt God in a time of evil, to seek Him out in order to alleviate this doubt, and to rely on Him in the end.

It is God who gives us a “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) when we rely on Him. This would mean that some evils may occur where we never know the full reason behind them or if there was a reason, but this is okay. To know God’s purpose in allowing a specific evil requires us to know God’s mind, which we cannot do. Likewise, as stated earlier, evil is irrational, so we turn to God to discover where we are to go once evil has befallen us.

In the end, love is the reason that evil is allowed into this world, but is also the means through which evil can be overcome. The purpose in allowing some existential evils is multiple-fold, but it is ultimately our reaction to this evil that determines everything. As a line from the Stavesacre song “Gold and Silver” goes,

Under wings of gold and silver/ sometimes we have to hide/ we’re sheltered from these bitter winters/ at least tonight

When we face evil on an existential level the only rational response is to seek out the shelter of God.

Thus, God allows evil on a grand scale and isn’t mutually exclusive to evil because He ultimately wants to display His love to His creation. However, in allowing these creatures to have free will evil became inevitable. Because of this, God allows specific evils to occur so as to not prevent our free will, but also to help us work with Him to fight evil. Finally, when the evil comes upon us, though it is great, ultimately we are to seek out God in these evils for our comfort and also to rely upon our community, rather than try to explain those specific, personal evils rationally.

[1] An Exposition, 286

[2] That is not to say that God didn’t create for His glory. God created because He is glorious, but also because He is love, because He is good, because He is just, and so on. We cannot divide God’s attributes.

[3] An Exposition, 205

[4] An Exposition, 265

[5] If God is benevolent then He will want to display His love. If He is perfectly good, then He will want to display His love in the best way. God is benevolent and perfectly good, therefore He wants to display His love in the best way.

[6] An Exposition, 257

[7] An Exposition, 385